One of the many blessings of my job facilitating classes for parents and their infants and toddlers is that these groups provide me with a personal learning lab. I often learn more than I teach.
A realization I had lately is that there’s often an element missing in our exchanges with children, particularly when they express their thoughts or feelings. What’s missing is silence. Not a brooding, deafening, or angry silence, but rather the open, receptive kind that gives children the time and space they need to fully express themselves. It is these moments that grant them permission to own and then process their feelings.
As I note in my post, The Key to Your Child’s Heart, acknowledging our children’s feelings and desires is one of the most powerful ways to validate and bond with them. Yet all too often, we find it difficult to provide our kids with the crucial next step — the quiet moment they need for our acknowledgments to sink in, to really feel we accept their point of view. To build healthy emotional resilience, children need this pause, an unspoken assurance that we are comfortable with their feelings so they can be, too.
Getting comfortable with the silence is the hard part. Many of us feel the overwhelming compulsion to say or do something — anything to fill the gap. Just letting these moments be can feel as unsettling as passively watching a bathtub overflow.
I was reminded of my own discomfort with silence after a recent telephone conversation with my college freshman. She is animated in person but admittedly dislikes talking on the phone. For several months after she shipped off to college, I’d felt myself trying to fill every bit of empty space with banter. Recently, however, I realized that when I was able to allow for some silence, she would eventually initiate dialogue herself.
Reflecting on this experience, I pondered the reason for my discomfort in those moments, and the answer made me teary: She’ll think I’m boring. She won’t want to talk with me on the phone anymore.
Allowing patient silence can be even more challenging with our younger children, especially when they have expressed an uncomfortable thought or feeling. For example, they are disappointed or distressed when we’ve acknowledged, “You really want me to play with you. You don’t like it that I said no.” It can be intensely unsettling to allow these feelings to hang in the air and play out rather than follow our impulses to:
Actively soothe and comfort
This might mean coaxing hugs or cuddles, acknowledging and empathizing in a poor baby tone, or otherwise snuffing out our children’s feelings with love. But true, lasting comfort is provided when we are calmly accepting and available, not pushing physical connection.
Distract and fix
We might do this by changing the subject (“Look at that wonderful new toy you haven’t even played with yet”), offering treats or rewards, bargaining, negotiating, or pleading: “If you can just give me ten minutes, I’ll be right back with you.”
Analyze and advise
This is similar to “distract and fix” but for children older than toddlers. For example, your child shares her hurt feelings about a friend being unkind to her, but before she’s even finished with her story you conjecture, “She probably did that, because…” Or, “So you thought she should…”, and then you offer your child solutions to avoid this ever happening again. Exploring these situations with our children is surely helpful, but only after we’ve braved the silence and allowed the moment to breathe so they can express themselves completely.
Dismiss or diminish.
I believe one of the most invalidating words we use when our children are expressing a feeling is “just.” For example, we might respond to our child’s demonstration of discomfort with, “That’s just a puppy,” or “That baby was just saying hi when he came close to you”. I can understand the compulsion to melt away a child’s concerns by diminishing them, especially when they seem unreasonable. But shouldn’t we be taking our child’s side? If not, who will? “You didn’t like that,” is all we need to say. And then silence, so this feeling can simply exist and be processed.
The impulsive responses we offer our children in order to try to resolve their feelings demonstrate our own discomfort. Since we are very powerful people to our children, our inability to brave the silence can give them the impression that their feelings are unnatural or wrong, perhaps too big a problem for them to handle.
The truth is, feelings don’t always make sense. They just arise and pass through, and they have a natural cycle — a beginning, middle, and end. As our children get older, we want them to understand this intuitively so they are comfortable letting their feelings play out. Now is the time to allow them to experience each stage of their feelings completely, to make sense of and learn from them.
(And now I’ll shut up and hope there’s not too much silence.)
For more on this topic:
You Want Mommy to Come Back by Thomas Hobson, Teacher Tom
When Empathy Doesn’t Work and A Mental Health Mantra for Parents and Kids on this site, and my compilation: Elevating Child Care, A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)
(Photo by Randen Pederson on Flickr)
Such a valuable realization. thank you for sharing this! Open, receptive silence – another way to demonstrate trust. Love it!
Thank you, Sandy!
Thank you for this. I’m finding myself more and more slowing down and waiting for my child after I’ve empathized with him. It’s certainly not easy to let those big feelings (esp mine!) to hang in the air. It feels so vulnerable and the outcome is unknown – as you described in the phone relationship with your college age daughter. I was never really allowed to feel and certainly wasn’t affirmed in my emotions as a child. This is all so new to me and as I parent my son in this way, I am parenting myself — allowing the space for my feelings to be worked through. This work has been such a gift to my parenting and to my me and my son. I am trusting him more and more and I am trusting myself in the process too. Thanks again.
You describe your process so insightfully, Athaliah. Parenting is such an exciting and challenging journey! Your child is very lucky to have a brave, aware mother like you.
Your response warmed my heart and brought tears to my eyes!! I think your comment about parenting yourself resonated most with me, as I realize that I am doing the same thing with myself, through the work that I do with children and families. I so admire and respect parents like yourself and others on Janet’s site who share honestly about their experiences and their journey through parenting!! It helps me remember to pause and be silent in all the emotions that are often expressed during my time with parents. I guess it’s sort of a parallel process! 🙂
As an adult I really appreciate silence and listening to be given to me. I also appreciate breaks and someone letting me just vent, without trying to fix my situation. I cannot believe I haven’t thought about my son’s need in this too! I’m always trying to fix situations, when sometimes he just needs to feel heard and have that silence. Thank you for this.
very well written and solid advice. thank you for illustrating so articulately the complexity of positive communication strategies. i’m sharing this with all my parents. thanks again!
Thanks so much for the encouragement, Tia!
Such valuable advice for so many situations! Even when asking for a raise! Quiet time allows real feelings to be heard. I try to remember to keep quiet but it does take discipline. I recommend you to all my friends!!! Thanks for all the wisdom 🙂
Awww, thank you, Jessica! Yes, that silence can feel so awkward, but is so important. I believe we should congratulate ourselves whenever we succeed at facing it bravely.
I am pretty new to this group and I really love what I learn here. I especially enjoyed the “being there for our child in silence” putting ourselves aside. The kids know when we are really listening and our attachment becomes really close
Miriam-mother of 11
Mother of 11?! You are amazing, Miriam!
Thank you! I’ve been finding myself talking over my 4 year old lately and was equal parts annoyed with myself and unable to put my finger on why exactly. This article was immensely clarifying for me!
I’m thrilled to hear that, Karin. Please let me know how this goes
Such important ideas! And yes, so hard sometimes.
I am especially struck by your saying “feelings don’t always make sense.” I was raised on this, and by an analytical psychotherapist mom so it was a dance between the two modes, even for her. The core sentiment rings clear in my heart- my feelings are ok.
But gosh it’s hard from the mama side and from the teacher/caregiver side it brings up the -we aren’t doing anything- reaction. I really think this is core to supporting and validating people, no matter how old.
When we are able to be clear about who is having the challenge, difficulty, problem…we are better able to step back and see what support that person needs. It is not cold or doing nothing, it is really being there, attending, listening, loving. And yes, hard to do.
I very much resonate with all you say, Jude. Yes, this is a great challenge. And most of us did not have the privilege of receiving acceptance from those we most needed it from most. But we can do this. Not perfectly or always, but sometimes…and gradually even more. I believe this is how Magda Gerber suggested we would “put the therapists out of business”. 🙂
This is a hard lesson to learn, not only with little children but people of all ages. I know I’m still learning it.
An example comes to mind. Last summer we had a house guest for five weeks. She was someone we love, someone we’d hosted in our home year after year through a foreign exchange program for kids. But we hadn’t seen her in nearly a decade. She was a grown woman who seemed to expect to have much more fun than our rural, frugal household could provide. I judged myself for what I was sure was a boring visit, filling the silence she probably would have appreciated and trying way too hard to make her days lively. That is, until I took her to an artist friend’s house. My friend had set out paints and thick paper on her porch. The three of us sat there in quiet companionable peace and painted all afternoon. The silence opened something in my dear houseguest. She told stories of getting lost in an airport and how she cried in despair until a man helped her, even though he and she couldn’t understand each other’s language. She talked about her parents, her girlfriends, the choices she was making for her future. All the questions I’d asked and attempts at conversation were so futile, when quiet was the key.
Silence holds a space, and it does so in a nearly palpable way. What’s between us can be felt. That’s something you can’t fake. Impatience, judgment, distraction, anxiety — they all feel entirely different than open and loving silence.
Such a rich, beautiful story and lesson, Laura. I am so grateful to you for sharing it. Yes, silence, patience and listening bring great things!
I don’t think silence with a technological device between you works the same way. A lesson for another time, yes, but something to point out. My daughters and I can be sitting in the same room, each with a device, and little interaction happens. Get us walking on a trail, however, and talking starts.
My Paternal Grandmother had this quality.
I love her!
Thank you very much for this great article. It’s like it goes with the “job”, that we – parent – need to have answers in every situation…
I believe this is one of the hardest part when trying to slow down, to allow things to be just the way they are without trying to control or have answers all the time…
Thank you very much for this great reminder
My pleasure, Claire
We are so guilty of talking and talking AT our toddler as we try to fix things. What I’m still struggling with having read this article though:
Teeth brushing is a major battle for us and often ends with me having to clean my daughter’s teeth for her. I’ll now make sure I say something like “I can see you’re angry. You didn’t like that I brushed your teeth/you wanted to do it for yourself.” I know that this likely won’t stop the tantrum that comes after I clean her teeth. So having created space for that silence, then what? Do I stay with her as she screams? Or do I walk away? (When walking away I always give her an “out”, eg, I’ll be in your bedroom when you’re ready for stories) I find this hard because often the meltdown is at bedtime when tiredness is driving her testing behaviour so there simply isn’t time for a meltdown at every step of our routine.
This is *exactly* what I needed to read at this moment in my parenting journey. I’ve been doing it wrong the last four years! I love the line: “Just letting these moments be can be as unsettling as passively watching a bathtub overflow.” It is very uncomfortable watching your child be extremely frustrated but giving them
that space to just ‘be’ allows them to feel accepted. Thank you Janet for a light globe moment in my parenting life!
My pleasure, Astrid! Thank you for your encouraging shout-out!
This is SUCH an important message, thank you Janet. I will continue to refer back to it and also be sure to pass it on to fellow parents.
I love this and I learned so much from it! Thank you. I have a question though. My 2-year old is going through a phase of what I believe is testing at bedtime. It’s just started in the last week. She’ll get in her bed just fine, I lay with her, we talk about her day, sing a few songs and then I tell her good night. Normally she doesn’t resist; she simply gives me a hug and kiss and says goodnight. Lately, however, it’s at this point that she says “Mommy, I want you to lay with me a little longer.” or “I can’t find dolly” (who is right next to her) or “I want another song.” I’m guessing these are tests and I usually respond by repeating what she says “You want me to lay with you a little longer, but I can’t. I love you and I’ll see you in the morning.” However, when she begins to cry after I leave (even though it’s only for 2-5 minutes) it breaks my heart. Should I be handling this differently? I’m wondering if something is bothering her for this to have just started? However, I also can’t be back there all night, so I’m really confused on how to handle it. Thoughts?
Silence is scary for adults, but not so much for kids…I find what helps to leave space for my 4-yo’s emotions is if I really am *there* with him in his distress. I concentrate on the physicality of the embrace, the sounds of his cries…even when they’re only “crocodile tears.” I rub his back or arm a little, and just basically try to enjoy the soothing effect I have on him. It’s powerful!
Wonderful article and bueatiful advice. We all want that at the end of the day. An open receptive silence that makes us feel accepted and heard.
I have a 3 year old however. The problem I face is when I am trying to be there with him during his crying sessions which are intense, he keeps asking me again and again why I did what I did. For example today he got upset when after bath he was taking too long to get dressed. He was getting distracted, acting out. So I told him if he is having trouble with getting dressed I will help him get dressed. After a few minutes when he still did not get dressed I took the socks from his hands, he was holding on to it very tightly so I had to use a little pressure. When I finally took it is when he blew off and began crying hysterically asking y I took the socks? I answered him saying because we were getting late and he was unable to do it. But he was not ready to accept my answer and kept asking me why I did it? And then said tomorrow when I do even if it gets late u let me do it. This kind of plays out every time I try to set a limit.
So I am wondering even when I am trying to remain passive and embrace the silence and just b present during his meltdowns he constantly keeps asking me which makes it difficult. Any advice on how I should b responding to this? Or am I missing something
Thanks a ton for all that you do
Another great article. Probably the hundredth one I read, but I still found something new I didn’t quite understand before. I love it. We tend to talk as we see things with our adults lens. But with our children we can be truly raw and comfortable with just our presence for them. I always tried to talk less due to your teachings, but I still have a little to go